JOSEPH — Despite strong winds, some small spotting and active burning on the eastern edge late in the day Saturday, there was little overall movement on the Granite Gulch Fire over the weekend and into Monday. Infrared mapping showed that fire had extended over about 4,800 acres in a patchwork mosaic burn as of Sunday night.
Daily helicopter drops are keeping the fire’s progress in check and guiding it toward the top of the Last Chance drainage as planned. Managing the movement of the Granite Gulch Fire is accomplishing several resource objectives.
Over the past century, white pine blister rust has decimated whitebark pine populations in the western U.S. Fortunately, those that survive produce seeds that are genetically resistant to the disease, but the species still needs help to reestablish.
“The trees that are left are hardier,” Incident Commander Adam Wing said. “Those will be the next generation of trees.”
Whitebark pine cones remain hard rather than opening and scattering their seed. These seeds are a key food source for the Clark’s nutcracker, which caches them in open areas across the landscape — exactly the kinds of places that get the direct sunlight necessary for whitebark pine to germinate.
When fire doesn’t clear the ground periodically, thick stands of subalpine can form, “shading out” caches of whitebark pine and preventing them from sprouting. Strategic management of the fire is clearing out smaller, denser stands of subalpine fir, allowing larger firs to thrive and creating the more open landscape whitebark pine needs to reestablish.
Cooler temperatures and higher humidity Sunday slowed the movement of the Granite Gulch Fire, which continues to do what nature intended — clear the forest floor of excess fuels which encourages the growth of forage.
“You couldn’t plan a better burn in mid-elevation mixed conifer,” Eagle Cap Ranger District Fire Management Officer Nathan Goodrich said. “Everything’s cleaning up really nicely with very low levels of mortality in the overstory.”
Managing a wildfire for resource benefits works almost exactly like a controlled burn and is planned in the same way. The need is identified, objectives are developed, the right conditions are determined, and when everything comes together the plan is executed.
Historically, mid-slope conifer density in the Eagle Cap Wilderness averaged less than 100 trees per acre, with skips and gaps in the forest canopy (tops of trees) that allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor and nurture new vegetation. Today, some areas have 500 or more trees per acre, which translates to a higher probability of a devastating crown fire, less diversity in vegetation types and less forage for wildlife.
Objectives for the Granite Gulch fire include:
Confining the fire’s footprint to the upper reaches of the Minam River drainage;
Establish containment lines to ensure the fire remains within those boundaries;
Draft worst-case contingency plans for suppression if the fire crosses pre-determined points and/or threatens Reds Horse Ranch or private inholdings;
Protect values such as bridges and other infrastructure;
Limit the fire’s spread to the west, south and east to open ridgelines formed by high elevation peaks, taking advantage of natural barriers, drainages and weather events to slow or delay the fire’s growth.
In the interests of public safety, an area closure remains in effect for the area between Rock Creek Trail and Trail Creek Trail which drains into the Minam River, excluding Elk Meadows. The complete closure order, map and updated fire information can be found at https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6498/